Sunday, 26 February 2012

Thin Paths by Julia Blackburn

I love Julia Blackburn's work - her biography/memoir 'Daisy Bates in the Desert' is one of my favourite books.  Add to that the fact that I live much of the year in an Italian mountain village not far from Julia's home in Liguria and you can see why Thin Paths - Journeys in and around an Italian Village was a must for me to read.

My partner loves climbing mountains, so we've been exploring the 'thin paths' that spread like a spider's web over the slopes for several years now.  These paths are very old, some of them are paved and walled and date back to Etruscan or Roman times.   This one is a carefully constructed series of stone steps.

 Often they lead to abandoned hamlets of stone houses high on the mountain-side - now ruined and overgrown,  but which used to be inhabited every summer when livestock was brought up to the high summer pastures.

Some were permanently inhabited by people who lived, precariously, off the land.  Inside, oddments of furniture still rot in rooms exposed to the elements, cattle chains and implements dangle from rusty hooks.  You get glimpses of an old way of life, gone for ever.

There are also other, less pleasant, memorials here.  Crude metal crosses, shrines, stones roughly inscribed with names, that mark the places where men were killed during the brutal civil war in 1944/5 between the fascists (both German and Italian) and the partisans (mostly peasants trying to protect their homes, crops and their way of life).   Communities up here are scarred forever by it - still living beside families who took the other side, or who betrayed friends or relatives.  Terrible things happened which those over 70 still remember witnessing. 

Julia records her own exploration of her village in Liguria and the paths that wind their way up into the mountains.  She records her neighbour's stories; finds the caves they hid in, visits the ruined villages where they were born.  At one point she discovers an entire abandoned hamlet with clothes still in the closets and crockery in the cupboards, left to mice and bats and the predations of the weather.  She has encounters with wild boar, salamanders and snakes.   The book began as a series of pieces commissioned for BBC radio and is composed of journal entries and essays which some reviewers have criticised for being too fragmentary.  It's true that it leads to a certain amount of repetition, but I didn't find that a problem.

What does come out of the book is the terrible hardship of the lives these people lived.  Yet they loved the landscape so much they were often unable to settle in the coastal towns they moved to after the war to get work.

I definitely recommend this book as a window on Italian life.


  1. My sister very kindly bought this book for me. I couldn't put it down, avidly turning pages and totally absorbed. A journey into the past of my ancestry, recalling a landscape I totally fell for when I was seven. Liguria is in my blood. I found the book very moving and all I wish is for my feet to follow those paths and to breathe those rich fragrances again soon.

  2. I'm so glad that you loved the book - the landscape is just as enthralling. I'm totally captivated by it. there's such a sense of history as you walk the old pathways - literally following in people's footsteps

  3. Your words and images shimmered through this post making me want both to be there and to read J Blackburn's book. It certainly made me was to write a story about the thin paths. w